A (Polish) Lesson in Libertarian Philosophy


Translation by Jakub Jankowski

Note: Konrad Berkowicz, the vice-president of the KORWiN party, speaking at the University of Economics on various topics including: the difference between rational and irrational individualism, on what conservative liberalism is, on Hayek, Dzielski, Ferguson, Kahneman, Margaret Thatcher, Read and Milton Friedman. He also speaks of what the ‘monuments of vanity’ are and why Descartes was mistaken in stating ‘I think, therefore I am’. Finally, on what destroys European civilisation and why the European Union must be destroyed.

Ladies and Gentlemen, thank you for coming. This will be a political lecture, if anything; this is a political gathering with you, fellow politicians. Regardless, this is an extraordinary event because this event is at a university. I have allowed myself to use the extraordinary circumstance of this meeting, to distance myself from what is happening in the current of mainstream politics, to approach it with a distant perspective and to say a few words about roots, because every field has its roots. Likewise, all current political affairs have their – deep – roots; these are of course roots of a philosophical and economic nature. We are, after all, not just in a university in general, but in a university of economics. As it is well-known, in universities of economics, of course not in this one – I am a guest after all, so I dare not make any claim, but on all universities apart from this one – that professors and lecturers often teach complete rubbish. And this follows from when the universities taught scientific socialism, the authors of which were Marx and Engels; just as then, we are taught yet another lie: Keynesianism.

Scientific socialism was of course dreadful, dangerous and very negative consequences. But as the talented and famous libertarian Murray Rothbard stated: ‘There was one good thing about Marx: at least he wasn’t a Keynesian!’ Why did he say this? He said this because as far as socialism was horrid, it was definite and distinct. Hence it was easier to identify it and thus it was easier to fight it – it was easy to defend, and to attack. After a certain time of course, after socialism was discredited. Keynesianism, on the other hand, is an ideology – I would call it soft – which is sometimes not accurately defined and has the ability to pretend to be an ideology or field similar to the free market. To pretend to be a field which as much as possible takes into account all known market mechanisms – the mechanisms which Marxism rejected.

This reminds me of a situation from November when the Law and Justice party nominated their Minister of Finance – a believer in the free market, and immediately there was elation, optimism voices shouting ‘Hurrah!’ – that before the Law and Justice party pretended to be socialists, and yet we have a liberal as our Minister of Finance. Unfortunately, this minister, soon after his appointment stated that his priority will be to put into effect the 500+ Project (500 Zloty per child); moreover, he even said where he will get the money from to do this! Allow me to paraphrase a little bit of Rothbard and another classical intellectual: ‘God save us from Law and Justice party liberals, because the socialists we could have handled’.

When I talk of ‘liberals’, then I am also speaking of us. After all, we consider ourselves to be libertarians. And yet, often we are termed as ‘liberals’. As you see, there are very serious problems with the word ‘liberal’, this word has so many different understandings; in the United States it means a social democrat, which is to say, leftist. Yet we are definitively on the right. I think it is important to understand, not just to unravel this language difficulty, but also on this occasion, when we reach for the appropriate thought, we can precisely define what our liberalism is based on. And why in Poland, on account of the late Mirosław Dzielski, an outstanding Krakovian philosopher, we can call ourselves conservative liberals. This title, in dilettantes, evokes laughter as how could you possibly be a conservative liberal? Liberalism is antithetical to conservatism and vice versa!

To untangle this problem, to understand what kind of view on the world we present, it is necessary to look at the work of Hayek. Hayek, a noble prize winner in economics, knew that the devil lies in the details. He observed that the problem with the word ‘liberal’ does not lie within that word, but in a different one, one which unwaveringly is related to the word ‘liberal’. That is, in the term ‘individualism’.

As we already know, every liberal is an individualist, and Hayek noticed that the word ‘individualist’ – this concept is often erroneously understood and in fact exists in two separate meanings, which not only are different, but are also in complete opposition to each other. Hayek understood that there is individualism, and this he split into two categories; one of which he graciously called ‘real’ and the other he noted as ‘false’. Of course, we all want to be the ‘real’ individualist, the kind of which we are. Unfortunately, Hayek calls the same type of individualism ‘anti-rationalist’ and the other he terms as ‘rational’. Everyone here would of course prefer to be rational than anti-rational, but once we understand the context within which this real individualism is ‘anti-rational’, then we will understand that there is nothing to fear and that it is good to be an ‘anti-rational’ individualist.

What is the thesis of this individualism? The main point of this anti-rational individualism, is that, when we observe what happens in society and in economics, we will see that most institutions and solutions – social, economic and civilizational – the ones which we constantly use and the ones which form the bedrock of human action – these are cultural and civilisational solutions and institutions which arose not out of some planned human design, and are not managed by man – I mean that a man as unit does not control them. They exist, but nobody designed them.

What kinds of institutions are these? Family is one example; no group of intellectuals ever spent time thinking there should be a family institution, but in some spontaneous order tied to nature, and also in the development culture and tradition, there simply arose the institution of family. This is a minor, yet powerful institution. The same also applies to customs. We have a wide variety of customs, which nobody ever – no group of professors ever sat down and invented them, they simple emerged and evolved. Our whole system of values – tradition in general, which contains our values and behaviours – it simply emerged too.

What’s more, not only did our society emerge but our entire economic system also did, it too is an institution – a mechanism which emerged out of natural law, and continues to develop and work based on the free choice of people. Leonard Read, amongst others, talks about this in his essay ‘I, Pencil’; this is an essay which became popularised by nobelist Milton Friedman, which is why often this story is wrongly identified with Friedman. Contained within this essay however, is the reflection, the understanding, that nobody in fact controls the process of production of a pencil. What’s more, not only does nobody control the process of production, but nobody is able to understand this process.

We can become aware of the individual facets of pencil-making; that on one continent there is a lumberjack in Patagonia chopping down cedar, on another continent there is a miner who extracts another resource as an element of the scriber, somewhere else the paint which coats the pencil is made, somewhere else the synthetic rubber is made. At this point I’m not even mentioning the further processes that go into this, but of course somewhere else the saw to cut down the cedar is produced, in another place the ships, which are used to transport this synthetic rubber, are being made and so on and so forth. There is one global cooperating mechanism over which no one has control; people who do not even talk to each other take part in this process, and yet somehow it happens that finally we have the pencil – which many of you in this hall may have. So nobody controls this process, only certain laws namely profit, but I will speak of this a bit later; in the end nobody really knows how to make the pencil because it is a mass of complicated processes. There are of course chemists who know a lot about the production of lacquer, there are many who know much about chopping down trees, but there is no single person who knows the totality of this process and hence nobody on Earth knows how this pencil came about.

So then we have these institutions, both social and economic which emerged – what did they emerge from? They emerged from a kind of spontaneous voluntary cooperation of free individuals. Simply, over a thousand years, millions of people cooperated freely, making choices, realising that some of these choices are wrong, making adjustments and setting down rules; and this is how Latin civilisation came about.

A giant organism, one which has certain rules, a system of values, from simple ones: freedom, property and justice, to things like honour, customs, holy days, churches, religion – all that cooperates together and somehow works. Nobody designed this. What’s more is that not only is this greater and grander according to real individualism, than whatever we could have invented ourselves, but this is greater and grander than human reason is able to fathom. This was wonderfully summed up by Adam Ferguson: ‘Nations by chance, find solutions that although indeed are the results of human action, are not the results of human design.’

Now let’s head over to false individualism; this is the exact opposite view. Where did it come from? The precursor of this form of individualism is Descartes, who is known to everyone, not only philosophers. Descartes was a philosopher who at one point decided that he will rid himself of all convictions in the process of learning and [CHILD DEVELOPMENT? – 12:16]. He will rid himself of these, he will have a clean mind – a tabula rasa.And from this moment he will, with a very critical approach, build a philosophical model of reality within which everything will be logically proven. He had to begin with something of course; so first, he had to prove that he exists. This is in order to show that this feeling of being alive wasn’t just a product of another mind or another phenomenon. Hence, he uttered the famous phrase: ‘I think, therefore I am’. These words, and his entire philosophy, engraved a huge mark on modern thinking, indeed, he is considered to be the father of modern philosophical thought.

As it turned out later, as philosophers thought about this problem, they eventually realised that this was complete nonsense. Outwardly, this concept seemed rational. Yet, this phrase ‘I think, therefore I am’ is buttered butter, in professional terms, a tautology. This is because the statement ‘I think’ is something above ‘I am’ , hence ‘I think’ presumes that ‘I am’, it presupposes existence. The process of though already assumes that ‘we are’. He could have equally well said ‘I think, I am’ or ‘I am and I think’, but of course, then it isn’t any kind of proof, but rather, a statement of two facts – the adoption of two beliefs and of course, his purpose was to get rid of all prior beliefs.

The outstanding, but mistaken, Descartes wrote in his ‘Discourses on the Method’ inter alia this: ‘One of the first thoughts to come to me was this: there is usually less perfection in works composed of several parts and produced by various different craftsmen than there is in the works of one man.’ Completely opposite, don’t you think? He also wrote: ‘I believe that if Sparta was at one time very flourishing, this wasn’t because each of its laws was good (seeing that many were very strange and even contrary to good morals), but because they were devised by a single man and hence were all conducive to the same end.’ Hence, according to this false rationalist individualism, all social institutions and all economic institutions can serve man only when they are subjected to the project and control of a unitary mind.

What is the consequence of such thought? The consequence of this type of thinking is social engineering – the belief that society works best when it is led by a professor or a committee of professors who will care for society, and, through state intervention, manage the economy and society. This is the belief that they will have so much knowledge about the whole body of society and economics that they will make better decisions than the spontaneous, and seemingly chaotic, order. Among many other things the Law and Justice party is carrying through our Sejm, the 500+[1] project is a distinct example of where the belief in social engineering leads us. The irony is the ruling party wishes to respond to fix this social pathology with state intervention, yet this phenomenon itself arose due to earlier interventions.

This reminds me the story of a certain German town; wherein effectively all stray cats were slaughtered because the Germans wanted to have order. Lo and behold, soon the Germans started buying Polish cats en masse because they imbalanced the ecosystem and began to have a major rat and mice infestation. This is very akin to the demographic problem we have now, it was caused by an earlier intervention by the state, so now the state has to intervene, and soon it will have to intervene again. Of course, it will only get worse.

The awareness of this will not only allow you to understand the current social and political issues we face, but will also give you a deeper understanding of other things, one example being the internet meme. A meme of Margaret Thatcher is very popular on the internet, which is de facto just a citation. This meme goes like this: ‘The European Union is destined to fail because it is something insane, a utopian project, a monument to vanity of left-wing intellectuals.’ As this quote says, the European Union is a project just like I have been describing so far. Left-wing intellectuals, overwhelmed by the vanity of their reason, believe that they are wiser than the civilisation, this organism which arose through thousands of years of development. They concluded to annihilate this civilisation and build a new ‘Union’ civilisation. They will destroy the family, and create a new institution – partnerships, preferably not just between man and woman, but also between man and man – and, of course, between the 49 other genders. Of course, this traditional split between the man and woman and a few anomalies is erroneous.

All the activity of the left and all EU activity exactly fit in a crack between two approaches. And this is where our conservatism appears; our conservatism is damned libertarian. Even more so, our conservatism is a direct result of our libertarianism. How can, a libertarian (in our context) not be a conservative? Meaning, he doesn’t value tradition, civilisation, traditional value etc. – If all that is a product of liberty? All this is a product of thousands of years of activity by millions of people who work spontaneously, make mistakes and so on.

Here is also another important difference between someone on the right and someone on the left. The right-winger does, or at least should accept with confidence, tradition, civilisation and values – critically of course. In this sense, that if he sees something that is faulty, he critiques it, and if he can prove his case, then the order corrects itself.  Thanks to this kind of criticism, this culture and economy improve and produce a great civilisation. On the other hand, a leftist is someone who in principle rejects the entire order, tradition, culture and civilisation. Why? ‘Because it’s not rational!’ – ‘Prove to me that celebrating the Sunday is rational’ he may say, for example. Of course, this is difficult to prove. And when one aspect of a culture is proven, only that particular part will be accepted by him. The rest he will not accept and will find out his folly only when he loses what all the others have gained. Hence the right criticizes with humility and respect in regard to the gains of the culture and civilisation.

As we can see, man is an irrational being by nature. Moreover, we are more aware of this than the left realises. We, on the free-market right, are often accused of seeing man as a Homo Economicus. Korwin-Mikke has once had this accusation put to him in a television debate, ‘You are for the free-market because you don’t realise that man doesn’t always act rational’. No! We understand this and that is why we are for the free market. That means, being for a system in which people, acting freely, founding companies make hundreds of mistakes every day. Those firms which continue to make mistakes fall; likewise, those companies which are heading in the wrong direction are losing profits and therefore change course, and so on and so on. This brings out the best companies, entrepreneurs and the best workers.

Meanwhile, it is the socialists who want all this ran by a group of experts – a bureaucracy. What the socialist fails to realise is that this group of people are also fallible.  Hence, if this individual or group is responsible for planning the economy, and if he were to make a mistake, then he would crash the entire economy. If a single entrepreneur makes a mistake, he will at most cause his company to fall.

This accusation was also put forward to Adam Smith; yet he even stated ‘I am not saying what can be achieved when the man works at his best, only how to minimise losses when he is at his worst.’  The conditions of liberty and the free market not only eliminate such infallibility, because the market corrects them, it also in some sense eliminates evil. Because the lumberjack in Oregon, of which I spoke in the case of the pencil; let’s assume that this lumberjack is an absolute egoist and is only interested in his own interest and profit, he cuts down this tree in Oregon only to make profit, and yet, even though he does this only and purely out of his own self-interest, he serves all the people who need pencils.  As Hayek stated, ‘Profit is a signal of what to do to server others’. Hence, since profit is a signal, I’d like to wish you all many signals in life. Thank you.

Notes

[1] A proposed project that would give each Polish family 500 zloty per child per year until the age of 18; it is intended as a measure to fight the low demographic rate in Poland.

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5 comments

  • A generally good speech. But I don’t agree about his negative view of Descartes; with whom, having long ago been trained as a mathematician, I feel a kinship. Moreover, Descartes was right about the value (in a free market) of the produce of one craftsman versus that of a committee of mediocrities.

    Here’s my take on “Cogito, ergo sum”:

    Descartes said, “I think, so I am.”
    Ayn Rand said, “Descartes, you’re a sham.
    It’s ‘I am, so I’ll think.’”
    Such talk drives me to drink,
    So, who’s going to buy my next dram?

    • I too love Descartes. One of the first philosophers to “get it.” A real system-builder.

  • There seems to be an editing error ‘himself of all convictions in the process of learning and [CHILD DEVELOPMENT? – 12:16]. ‘ I presume the ‘CHILD DEVELOPMENT’ part Is part of an ambiguous translation. Otherwise, the article is rather good and I commend Mr. Berkovich and the Poles for at least having a libertarian voice in their midst.

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